While Paris in the 20s and 30s was a groundbreaking place and time for the arts, this golden era was also a challenging time for a bookish businesswoman. The Great Depression that started in the United States affected those in Europe, too.
Times were tough for Sylvia Beach as they are for us now. The steady stream of American customers to her bookshop Shakespeare and Company dried up in the 30s. She relied on her wits, her friendships, and her commitment to a cause to keep her shop alive.
It’s hard to imagine now, but mass-market paperbacks were only introduced globally in 1935 by Penguin Books. Sylvia, like us with our electronic books, was forced to stay on top of the changing reading landscape so she could offer her customers the latest in reading innovation.
As formerly secure paths wither away, like Sylvia, we’re forced to become more innovative entrepreneurs in order to succeed.
Despite the startling technological differences between Sylvia’s era and ours, we can find value in seeing how some approaches endure across the eras.
I’ve identified four ways that Sylvia’s business model can inspire our own entrepreneurial endeavors.
1) Carve out a niche within a niche
Shakespeare and Company was Paris’s first English language lending library. Sylvia’s customers were expatriates and French students who needed to read in English.
There have always been plenty of bookshops in Paris, but Sylvia’s was unique in what it offered and how she both sold and lent books.
The bookshop’s stock came from the US and the UK. Sylvia shipped books across Europe to her traveling library members.
How are you unique in your field?
2) Offer membership and access
Today, information and access to authors is free and easy. To rise above the fray, one must be innovative and willing to take a different direction than the herd.
Like Sylvia, we must find strategic and creative ways to sell books. Sylvia charged a fee to be a member of her lending library. In the late ‘30s, she created another level of membership, offering insider access to author readings and other perks.
Now, membership sites are magnets for people who want to share work and life with like-minded people. Membership and access can generate not only income but also greater intimacy between authors and readers.
How can you create special access for select insiders?
3) Spark buzz with quality and scarcity
With no Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon, how did a bookseller generate interest? Sylvia mastered the art of the hand-written missive and planned ahead to make sure her audience knew about upcoming events.
She believed that the book she was publishing, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was an extraordinary novel, even though traditional publishers deemed it offensive and convoluted.
Sylvia offered pre-sales both to spark a sense of insider access and to generate money to pay the printers.
She limited this first edition to 100 copies, printed on Dutch handmade paper. A copy of this book went for a record-breaking $440,000 at auction in 2009. Quality and scarcity can be powerful incentives in our era of free and ubiquitous access 24/7.
How can you use ‘limited’ and ‘special’ to promote your work?
4) Be a useful community hub
Shakespeare and Company quickly became a meeting place for writers and artists passing through Paris. In an era without the speed of digital communication, Sylvia often received their mail and messages.
Sylvia devoted herself to helping writers, selling their work, hosting readings at her store, and connecting people when they came to Paris to live the writer’s life. Her shop served as an impromptu salon for book lovers. Her friend Ernest Hemingway said that she had ‘a God-given gift for friendship’.
Today we see these global connections fostered online in forums and on blogs (link to goodreads) where booklovers gather to share favorite titles and to gossip about authors.
How are you useful to your readers and where do you inspire them to gather?
Sylvia’s strategies and passion for books are of great interest to me. I explore some of these themes in my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, which will be published in June, 2012.
To get the first scoop about publication details and special treats for readers, please join the Chasing Sylvia Beach salon.